“The Wholeness That’s Way Too Big”:

Imagining the Sublime With Kant, Derrida, and Jack Kirby

Since I earned my master’s degree in art and philosophy, it may be unsurprising that two of the most dog-eared books on my shelf are Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment and The Truth in Painting by Jacques Derrida. Right next to them is, of course, my collection of Jack Kirby’s O.M.A.C., one of absolute favorite comics of all time. At first glance, these three books don’t seem to have much in common; however, I think all three explore the role of sublimity in art. More specifically, how can a work of art present or recreate the experience of something truly sublime? Both Kant and Derrida were skeptical that sublimity could be captured in art. Kirby, however, always seemed to push the limits of his artwork and the comic book medium to the limits of the sublime.

For the uninitiated, The Critique of Judgment is Kant’s attempt to establish objective criteria for aesthetic judgments such as taste, beauty, and sublimity. I’ll spare you the technical jargon here, but according to Kant, something is only truly sublime if it is beyond all comprehension, yet can be apprehended or experienced as a totality. However, Kant claims that “An object is monstrous if by its magnitude it nullifies the purpose that constitutes its concept.” [1] In other words, if something is so large that we can’t make sense of it it is monstrous, or incomprehensible. Although the truly sublime may be beyond our comprehension, Kant suggests that something that is colossal, or almost too large, can still be understood, although it challenges our “power of apprehension.” [2] (For a slightly more detailed and entertaining explanation of Kant’s aesthetic theory, check out this video of Reading Comics author Douglas Wolk’s “Drastically Abridged Awesome Version”). In other words, the sublime is beyond our power of comprehension, but the merely colossal is just almost too large.

In his book The Truth in Painting, Derrida offers a deconstructive reading of Kant’s aesthetic theory. By focusing on Kant’s imprecise distinction between the colossal and the monstrous, Derrida points out the tension present in this notion of almost too large: if the “too large” is beyond comprehension, than how can we know when the line defining almost has been crossed? Although Derrida questions whether or not there can really be anything truly sublime, since it would be beyond our comprehension, he does say that the experience of the sublime “can be encountered as such only in the mind and on the side of the subject.” [3] This seems to suggest that sublimity can only be hinted at, but never fully presented. Of course, when it comes to hinting at the sublime, Jack Kirby was the King.

"Larger than a star cluster--FUSED! LIVING!--Taking a BILLION Earth years to feel one heartbeat!!" New Gods #5 by Jack Kirby and Mike Royer.

Kirby was no stranger to huge, cosmic ideas. For example, one of his most enduring characters is a celestial deity who eats planets. As big and mind-boggling as these concepts are, Kirby’s techniques and style have a colossal feel to them. The most effective technique, I think, is his use of double-page spreads, which, besides being physically larger than usual comics panels, just feel bigger since they play with the rhythm of our reading experience. Of course, these days double-page spreads are fairly common since they give the artists a chance to show off and help pad out the page count of flimsy stories. Kirby, however, uses them as a storytelling device. There are hundreds of examples of double-page spreads from Kirby’s career, but the most interesting and effective use, in my mind, is what I like to call the “Kirby One-Two Knockout!”: a splash page followed by a double-page spread, usually at the very beginning of an issue.  A better versed Kirby expert may know exactly when he started using this style, but he employs it regularly throughout his work for DC Comics in the early 1970s. One particularly effective example is from O.M.A.C. #1 from 1974 (which, for my money, is one of the greatest single issues of Kirby’s career and comic book history in general. If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favor and do so soon. Also, be sure to check out Ryan C.’s detailed analysis of the series while you’re at it.). It starts with one of the most disturbing images in Kirby’s career:

O.M.A.C #1 by Jack Kirby and Mike Royer.

Choosing introduces a new series and character in such in medias res fashion is not an unusual storytelling device. However, this introductory page tells us nothing about the title character: all we know is that in “the world that’s coming,” things might be a little…different. Is the woman in the box in pain or distress? No, since she is speaking calmly to us. Yet, the voice coming from off-panel seems worried for her: “Lila…Lila!” As unsettling as this image is, we can’t look away since it takes up the entire page: it strikes as an instant in time, a moment that feels important even though we can’t quite comprehend what’s going on. We turn the page to reveal the voice from off-panel belongs to…

O.M.A.C! The One Man Army Corps! Kirby informs us that this is the climax of the story, so the details of “the world that’s coming” and why O.M.A.C. needs to destroy these “Build-A-Friends” will come later. Again, this is not an unusual storytelling choice, but what Kirby has done is drastically raised the stakes from the first page: that initial image was intriguing enough, but now it has expanded into a much larger and more complex moment. Is this larger, more dynamic image hinting at something beyond our comprehension? Even though this double-page spread is larger than the previous page, it is still presented as a single moment. It may take us longer to “read” this image, but it is still an instant in time, which again, feels bigger or longer than the previous page due to its size.

By playing with the scale, not just of the physical page, but also with how time is presented on the page, Kirby comes close to the almost too large: the pages of the comic book can barely contain the action on the page. After this double-page, Kirby goes back to his usual six-panel grid format to tell us who O.M.A.C. is and why he’s needed in “the world that’s coming.” Obviously he needs to do that to tell the story, but by starting the issue in such a dynamic manner, there is almost a sense that the unity of the page has been shattered: it is too small to contain a story or concept of this scale. Since the story is beyond our comprehension, the page and the “time-space” of the comic is shattered and segmented. Once placed into smaller moments, the scale of the story can be comprehended, but there is always the hint of something larger, too large even, just after the next turn of the page.

In The Critique of Judgement, Kant discusses what he calls the “dynamically sublime” which he compares to dangerous storms or threatening cliffs: it is something that is threatening but appealing at the same time. We can watch a dangerous storm from far away and be intrigued by its size and destructive force. Kirby’s stories have a similar feel: there is an unmistakable power and scope to them that may feel too large, but we feel compelled to continue reading. The fact that he used this “one-two punch” throughout much of his career, it’s clear Kirby recognized the storytelling weight of the technique. Even though they became a predictable part of each issue’s rhythm, the sheer size and impact of those double-page spreads still gave Kirby’s stories an element of the sublime.

O.M.A.C. #4 by Jack Kirby and Mike Royer.

Am I reading too much into this? Perhaps, but Kirby’s technique is effective nonetheless. Since comics portray movement in both time and space, it behooves creators to play with how the reader will experience that movement. If the sheer enormity of the story seems too large, it only makes it that much more appealing. The fact that Jack Kirby was able to use such a simple technique to give his stories a cosmic, colossal scope shows why we still call him The King.

[1] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Hackett Publishing Company, 1987), 109.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod (University of Chicago Press, 1987), 131.

Tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


Paul R Jaissle is a philosophy professor, collage artist, and musician who writes about film and comic book theory and blogs for destroythecyb.org. He earned his MA in philosophy and art from Stony Brook University, and currently lives in Grand Rapids, MI. You can follow him at paulrjaissle.tumblr.com and @ohhipaulie on Twitter.

See more, including free online content, on .

Also by Paul Jaissle:

Humans and Paragons: Essays on Super-Hero Justice


Leave a Reply